Will no one slate Apple’s iSlate?

First off, let's just remind ourselves who came up with this idea

Amid the avalanche of news articles and blogs gushing over the anticipated launch of an Apple tablet computer next week -- possibly called the iSlate or iPad, or neither -- it is perhaps worth taking stock of the situation and asking whether all the hype is really justified.

The idea of a tablet or slate PC is not new. In fact, they've been around for about ten years, and it's a format that came to the mainstream thanks to a product announcement by Microsoft in 2001, when the Redmond-based firm launched a pen-enabled computer running a licensed copy of the "Windows XP Tablet PC Edition".

It was essentially a laptop-style device that featured a touchscreen with handwriting recognition, to make it easier to jot down notes, rush off a quick sketch, or whatever. Some manufacturers opted to stay with the laptop's physical keyboard, spawning a category known as "booklets", while others dropped the keyboard in favour of just a touchscreen in a device resembling a slate.

So, first off, let's just remind ourselves who brought this concept to the mainstream -- Microsoft -- before we wonder whether Apple's version will "change the world" as some commentators are suggesting.

Second, it's worth noting that, so far, such tablets have found only a limited audience. A recent Morgan Stanley report suggested that two million tablet PCs were shipped last year, compared to 34 million netbooks and 131 million notebooks.

So why hasn't the tablet PC already overtaken more conventional laptops, notebooks or, indeed, the latest netbooks? Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of disadvantages. These include the higher cost, snail-like speed of handwriting recognition compared to a keyboard, screen and hinge damage risk, less familiar ergonomics and, in most cases, a relative lack of power.

So if Apple launches a tablet-style Mac next week, will it change any of this?

There are plenty who are happy to help Apple out with a bit of hype. The Guardian ran a front-page article in its G2 section, asking: "Can Apple change the world again?"

In that article, the author, Charles Arthur, makes some excellent points, but also says: "Now, however, armed with a decent-sized screen, effortless multi-touch, sleek good looks and all those millions of apps, perhaps Apple's tablet will prove the holy grail of being the consumer favourite for watching TV and movies, reading e-books, surfing the web and playing games."

Compared to many articles, this was understated, yet it still wonders whether the iSlate will change the portable TV, e-reader, web surfing and games device markets.

Meanwhile, the technology news site Silicon.com asked: "Is Apple preparing a tablet to kill all laptops?"

Kill all laptops? However great the new iSlate, it seems inconceivable that it will replace laptops. Typing on a keyboard is still the optimal way of adding text to an email, document or even Tweet. Not only are touchscreens fragile, but their on-screen keyboards can get greasy and prove less fast and accurate than the keyboards most people are familiar with.

There's surely going to be a question over battery life. While many are saying the iSlate will revolutionise both the e-reader (digital book) and publishing industries, I'm yet to be convinced.

Charles Arthur enthuses, "The Apple tablet's reading experience is expected to be much enhanced from the current crop of handheld e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, which launched in November 2007 and costs about £300. With its monochrome screen, plasticky white buttons and limited web browsing capabilities, you'd never mistake the Kindle for an Apple product."

But there's a reason that today's e-readers tend to opt for a monochrome screen. A digital book or e-reader is designed to mimic a book. That means it needs to be both easy on the eye and have a rather long battery life: if you can read a book for days without having to think about batteries, you certainly wouldn't want to swap that experience for one in which you must recharge a battery every few hours.

Yet even the iPhone, with a far smaller screen than any predictions for the iSlate, suffers complaints about having a limited battery life under typical usage patterns.

So it's unlikely to compete head-on with dedicated e-readers, at least if it has a bright, colour screen. And it won't kill off laptops because most people still want a keyboard, and a folding keyboard happens to protect the screen from knocks and scratches, too.

Meanwhile, in a story entitled "Apple may change the world . . . again", Fast Company says: "We're in for a massive change in the world of computing as we know it." The author, Gadi Amit, suggests that, "Since Apple has rarely (or actually . . . never?) failed with market introduction of a strategic device, I will go out on a limb and say that this might change the software industry as well."

Amit is clearly forgetting about the Apple TV set-top box, and the Apple Cube, which, as Arthur points out, was a pet project of the Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, that sank without trace.

But Amit says the iSlate will revolutionise the software market, just to add to the claims that it will revolutionise the publishing industry, reinvigorate portable gaming, kill the laptop market and shake up the e-reader market to boot.

Is there nothing this device is not predicted to revolutionise? Perhaps that will be its biggest challenge: trying to be all things to everyone. Is it an e-reader, a portable gaming device, a big iPhone, a form-changing laptop, or none of the above?

Whatever it turns out to be, I'm bored by the ridiculous hype already. Which is not to say that it won't still sell by the truckload, to those who would shoot themselves in the iFoot if Steve Jobs got up on stage to explain in charismatic fashion why they should.

Jason Stamper is the technology correspondent of the New Statesman and editor of Computer Business Review

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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